HP, Red Hat, Novell and Sun talking about open-source and Linux at this year's LinuxExpo -- that's not news. But Microsoft joining in -- now that's news.Microsoft UK's national systems engineer Bradley Tipp braved the Linux zealots to argue Redmond's corner at the London event. Questions from the audience ranged from "why is it so difficult to buy a laptop that's not preloaded with Windows?" to the wider implications of open-source software for the technology industry as a whole.
ZDNet UK was on hand to record all the action and ponder whether Microsoft's man would get out of the room alive after attacking the Linux General Public License (GPL) and admitting to some suspect past behaviour.
Question: Is there real competition on the desktop yet?
Samba/HP: If you're an enterprise user and you are not at least piloting Linux on the desktop then you're paying too much for your Microsoft software.
Novell: If the question is, "is there serious competition on the desktop today?" then the answer is no. Three or four years ago, if you'd asked if there was competition on the server, then the answer would be no. But today 22 per cent of the server market is Linux, tomorrow that number is going to sky-rocket up. Today, the Linux desktop is very good but three years from now I think you'll begin to see those kinds of numbers. And I think it's only as Linux desktop proceeds that we will see Microsoft innovate. Give a year, give two years and we will see frantic competition on the desktop.
Red Hat: There are definitely some elements lacking that we need to invest in. So, if we talk about the consumer market then we have Microsoft with a very mature product that everyone understands and Linux is not quite there yet. But the only way we tackle that is through investment. It won't happen as an on/off switch – suddenly it's arrived – no I think we are going to see an ever increasing use of the desktop.
Microsoft: I agree with what most of the guys had to say. There certainly is competition. I think Microsoft does its best work when there is innovation -- so bring it on is basically what I say.
Sun: My view is that you have to look at what the outcomes are. What could we expect if competition was happening? If your idea of the outcome of competition is complete displacement of what there was before then that isn't going to happen. What we are going to see is increase in choice, increase in competition and related increase in innovation. I think there is competition and the outcome of it will be positive.
Question: It's extremely difficult to buy a bare machine – particularly a laptop -- without the Microsoft OS on it. What have Microsoft, IBM and HP to say about that?
Samba/HP: I think HP recently announced that they would sell laptops with Linux on there. In the US, you can definitely buy laptops and desktops with Linux installed. But I understand where you are coming from, as the first thing I had to do when I got my internal HP laptop was to basically reformat the disc without booting Windows. It is finally beginning to change. There should have been a Government solution to enforce, that you should be able to buy a laptop and return the software for a refund. I think it's a scandal that you can't do that.
IBM: At the moment we certify Linux on our ThinkPads. I think as the market develops, it is going to be interesting to see how this plays out and if it's similar to the way it has played out in servers.
Microsoft: I think there is a couple of really interesting things to come out of this. Firstly is, we don't sell laptops so what these companies choose to do with their products is up to them. Despite what you may think, there is no restriction in the licensing terms with either of these companies that says they can't provide naked machines -- they can absolutely do that. If you look at the DOJ agreement from some time ago now, one of things we are restricted from doing by law is putting in clauses that would do that sort of thing. It may have happened in the past, it certainly doesn't happen anymore. So don't blame us.